I was invited to participate in an Ash Wednesday service at The Citadel. I took “participate” to mean “assist.” But as it turns out, “participate” meant both lead and preach. Those of you who have not known me long, will assume this confusion over “participate” was a misunderstanding. Those of you who have known me longer, will have already safely assumed that the error was my own. Either way, I had the unexpected burden and gift of preaching to young men and women on Ash Wednesday at The Citadel. The sermon was not recorded, but the text is as follows:
Today marks the beginning of the ancient Christian season of Lent, a season of reflection, spiritual transformation, and Godly sorrow lasting forty days. Lent is not meant to be an easy time. The forty days remind us of the Old Testament story of the tribes of Israel, wandering the desert for forty years before arriving at the promised land. These forty days also bring to mind the New Testament story of Jesus alone in the desert, without food or water, being tempted by the devil before emerging into his public ministry. Things die in the desert. For the Christian, who believes in resurrection, the threat of a desert death is not a bad thing. The one who enters the desert and dies there, might experience a mini resurrection as he enters the promised land of a better self.
The gravest mistake of these forty days, for those who decide to keep them, is to keep them playfully, passing through the Lenten desert like wealthy tourists on an exotic, Saharan vacation. Give up food or drink, to see if you can do it, or to secretly drop an inch or two off your waistline in Jesus name. Or give up Netflix, or social media, and watch your grades improve. But you will have missed the point of the desert, which is to starve, to thirst, and to die. You will have not heard the words of the German theologian and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Lent invites you to a funeral. It is your own, with the promise that Jesus himself will preside over both the death, but also the resurrection. You can, by the grace and mercy of Jesus, be someone different and better at the end of these forty days than you are right now. And that’s what I want to talk with you about this evening. I’ll be using the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, Ch. 58 if you’d like to follow along.
Day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
“Why have we fasted,” they say,
“and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?”
‘Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
Isaiah is not describing pagans from a far away land. He’s not describing the dreaded, liberal secular humanist that you might have heard about from you conservative church back home. No. Isaiah is talking about people you might describe as “good church folk.” They seek God “day after day.” They “seem eager” to know God’s ways. They pray to God for “just decisions.” They fast. They humble themselves. They are both very religious and very spiritual. But…at the same time, Isaiah tells us something is off balance. He tells us that despite all their religious devotion, they are not a “nation that does what is right.” They have “forsaken the commands of…God.” They fast and humble themselves before God, but then exploit the poor and take advantage of the worker. They seek God in prayer and worship, but then afterwards they argue and fight with their neighbors. There is a difference between who they are before God and who they are in the world. It isn’t their situation alone, but there is a near universal experience of humanity that who we wish to be before God, and who we actually are, are not the same person. In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of those principles. -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta Ga., 1962
This is a tragedy of my own life. In my own life there is a gulf between practice and profession. In my own life there is a gulf between doing and saying. In my own life, there is this persistent schizophrenia. What is the solution to this great tragedy? The two sides, what we profess with our mouths and do with our bodies must be reconciled. As Isaiah says:
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Now if you play at religion, which means you’re mostly content to come to church every so often and be a reasonably good person, then you’ll probably find the challenge of closing the gulf between practice and profession to be a relatively simple issue. Far from forty days, you may even convince yourself you’ve achieved the goal by the end of the service. But for those of you who take the words of the Book seriously, you will see that if you had forty lifetimes to close the gulf between who you say you are, and who you actually are, you very likely might never be able to do it. Despite my most sincere intentions, my very best efforts, with the most faithful and supportive friends, I still find the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans to be true: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom 7.18-19).
What is to be done? If we are our very own worst problem, self rescue is not an option. Even a self-rescue disguised as Lenten devotion will be useless. How can the hypocrite escape his own hypocrisy? A talented hypocrite can deceive even himself. But he cannot deceive God, not matter how good the performance.
So, what then? The answer of Lent is that into the desert we must go, where the sun can scorch, and the sand can starve the human tragedy that lives at the center of all of us. But this can’t be done on your own. Those who seek to starve out this tragedy in the desert alone, will simply fail alone. We must go into this Lenten desert with someone. “Who will deliver me from this tragic situation?” asked the Apostle Paul (Rom 7.24 paraphrase). “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ” (Rom 7.25). Into the desert we must go, but we must go with Jesus. But how?
The forty days of Lent end the week before Easter. During that final week before Easter, Christians typically focus on the days leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And here is the clue to how one can enter a Lenten desert with a true deliverer, one who has power to oversee both the death of the hypocrite as well as the resurrection of a righteous man. Again, the words of Dr. King are useful:
As I behold the uplifted cross I am reminded not only of the unlimited power of God, but also of the sordid weakness of man. I think not only of the radiance of the divine, but also of the tang of the human. I am reminded not only of Christ at his best, but of man at his worst. We must see the cross as the magnificent symbol of love and conquering hate and of light overcoming darkness. But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and master was nailed to that cross because of human blindness. They knew not what they did.
The Lenten desert always has the cross before it. As Dr. King said, the cross reminds us of the sordid weakness of man, the tang of the human, man at his worst, nailing the Lord of Glory to the cross, not knowing what they did. That is the desert. That is dry ground, dry enough to scorch and kill the roots of the most committed hypocrite. But that’s not all the cross does. The cross also reminds us of the unlimited power, grace, and mercy of God. The cross reminds us that on our worst day, Christ had his best. The cross teaches us that even though we nailed the Lord of Glory to the cross, not knowing what we we’re doing, Christ knew. And he loved us anyway. “Father forgive them,” he said, “they know not what they do.” And that is the promised land. That is resurrection to a new and better life. Only those of you who hear the hard truth of the cross will experience the necessary, spiritual death of human tragedy that lives at the root of each of us. And only those of you who hear the sweet, good truth of God’s unlimited love shown on the cross will experience the necessary, spiritual resurrection. The cross, that you may choose to have written on your head in ash, is a powerful reminder of these two truths, one of death, and one of life.
If you want help, I’m hear for you and with you, as I make my annual pilgrimage into the desert to once again put this hypocrite to death, and also once again to let the Good news of Jesus Christ resurrect, refresh, and awaken a better man. To that, I trust myself not to a holy Lent, nor my own self-discipline, but only to my guide, teacher, master, Lord, deliverer, Savior, friend, and brother, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. He must preside over the funeral. I trust he will be there for the resurrection. Amen.